Dr. & Mrs.
by Em Faerman
Tame. That’s how she would describe him if she was asked to in one word. Like in those silly wedding shower games. What kind of toothpaste does your future husband prefer? What is your soon-to-be-wife’s favorite perfume? That kind of thing. She was awestruck that, for once, she was the wild one. She found it agreeable that tame was the description of him in one word as she was the type who likes to know everything that’s going to happen before it occurs.
It was in that moment of realization that she fell in love with him. It was then that she knew this was the man who would be her husband.
Tame isn’t one for surprises.
All day long suburban mothers would enter and leave his exam theater where he would dim the lights and start the show.
“One or two?”
“Two or three?”
“Three or one?”
The woman accompanying the child was always dressed in her finest — silk stockings with straight seams up the backs of calves, a tasteful hat, an appropriately hemmed skirt which lengthened with advancing age. It was clearly quite a to-do, quite an outing, with Billy or Sally or Jane or John along getting examined for the first time. The fear in their wide virgin eyes:
“One or two?”
“Two or one?”
He would ask very cautiously.
Why don’t I just move the practice out to the suburbs? He would find himself thinking at least once a day as he verified in a calm, even voice:
“Two or three?”
“Three or two?”
As each child nodded and shrugged, as each pair entered and left. Mother and Child. All day long; they entered and left, like his own children had entered and left their mother’s womb.
I like taking the train, he always concluded each time he heard the exam theater’s door close lightly behind yet another departing pair. Two years after he had been wed, they moved out to the suburbs from the city. There were ducklings in the yard and a litter of kittens the first spring. She was fully domesticated. It was shortly after that she had conceived.
It gives the housewives a reason to dress, he maintained. All day long as they entered and left, as he asked:
“One or three?”
“Three or one?”
Always in his calm even voice.
Besides she needed his away-ness to fuss over pies which varied seasonally and perfectly iron his shirts, to prepare for his always later-than-anticipated arrival in a fashion implicit of mania. To organize the home, situate the children, arrange his meal. Tasks accomplished in such a way that an onlooker would be led to believe he was not coming at all and she was simply working off the nervous energy such a fact manifested. He’s not coming back becoming a refrain in her mind with each colder and colder supper, on each morning when he kissed her cheek and slid himself behind the station car’s wide wheel earlier and earlier. He’s not coming back growing louder and louder with each child that entered and left her.
The relief in her gaze as she brought him his nicely arranged plate and freshened his old fashioned. Each night later and later.
“Here’s to you,” he would say, raising the glass toward her and bowing his head, as if in apology.
“Here’s to us,” she used to correct.
When she served the fussed over pie which varied seasonally she would move to his right side instead of across from him, taking careful note of the exact angle at which his nose sloped, nodding into her tea cup, always later and later.
Maybe one, maybe two.
Maybe two, maybe three.
And she was reminded of the late nights of their courtship, how she would listen to the two beat tone of the ringing phone when she dialed his number, as even as ocean waves. Regretting how easily she had succumbed to its lull.
He knew she needed the space to miss him.
Of course she had perfect eye sight, a trait she passed on to each of their children in turn as if to spite him. Even once she began to age, her eyes remained strangely focused, free of cataracts; her sclera bleach white.
Despite this, she would, on occasion, call for an appointment using a name she randomly selected from the telephone book the first few years they were married. Before the children and the absence of idle time, before the ducklings in the yard and the litter of kittens from that first spring who were now full grown. When he had closed the door he would press her against the wall and lift her skirt, fingering the lace tops of her thigh high stockings, knowing the seams lay perfectly straight against the backs of her calves.
When her high giggle mounted to a throaty moan, the receptionist, an older women, would exit the office smiling, locking the door behind her. Anticipating a long lunch and knowing, from her own cooled marriage, that such indiscretions would cease once the misses’ stomach became swollen from their efforts.
And in the wildness of their early domesticity grew a longing for something to hold. Growing stronger and stronger with each later and later arrival, each earlier and earlier departure, each fused over pie which varied seasonally. Each month as she cycled through came also a nagging sorrow.
But for one or two?
Two or three?
That evening on the train home, he catches a woman’s eye across the aisle. When she notices him looking, her lips’ corners curl into a shy smile revealing a small smudge of lipstick on the upper canine tooth and a misplaced dimple.
He imagines the conversation they will have when she happens to bring Billy or Sally or Jane or John to get examined for the first time in the not so distant future.
“Now, now Mrs. Johnson. It’s only a slight astigmatism to the right eye,” he would say firmly, smoothing the worried look wrinkling her face after he had drawn his conclusions, hiding the misplaced dimple and small smudge of lipstick.
“I would, however suggest you get fitted for a pair of wires,” he would smile to the child in tow, bending at the knees and waist to be level with the woman’s small companion, tapping his index finger against his own frames twice for emphasis. Then he would straighten, flash a brief but charming smile and motion to the display of available styles.
But perhaps if she were alone…he would think, admiring the straight seams of her stockings.
He looked at people’s eyes all day long, unframed, as he adjusted his phoropter’s Jackson Cross-Cylinder and Risley prisms, measuring phorias and vengeances, osculating the cylinder lenses. For all the careful measurements he made during the exam, he made more profit selling frames.
“Which is better? One or two?” he would ask, switching between two sets of lenses.
“Two or one?” he would inquire again, switching between the lenses once more, allowing the patient time to deliberate without abandon or consideration for the minutes of the doctor’s life slipping by in the darkness of the exam theater. Frankly, he had more fortitude for selling the frames than performing exams. The feel of the light structured titanium a delight to his fingertips, the thick plastic rims a comfort.
One or two?
Two or three?
Three or one?
These sculpted objects were immutable unlike the conclusions he drew into a nicely penned script from his careful observations and minuet adjustments, his endurance during their careful deliberations. For there were many things which he could never capture in the curves and arcs of the prescription he provided, in the style of the frames each selected from his varying display. He was unable to produce a sound solution to the problems beyond what each set of eyes presented. He was unable to tune the mind’s natural lens; perception a thing which science lacked the power to measure. Yet, he was consoled to provide the clarity to bring each patient uniquely from fuzzy to clear, from darkness to light, even if not from looking to seeing. For though he possessed the skill to re-frame each patient’s sight he was unable to alter what they saw as it is the mind alone which deciphers what the eye observes.
When she was pregnant with their first child, he was mesmerized by the thought that at first glance, a stranger wouldn’t be perceptive of it. He though, was; from the gait of her walk, the protective semblance of her arms with bent elbows, the hands falling near the waist, her pride. Just looking, a stranger would be unable to discern for a few months more the secret of their shared glances, their mingling group of cells already resembling a smaller replication of themselves. The masterpiece of their converging deoxyribonucleic acid incubating.
A child must do very little to possess a mother’s pride and adoration, shear existence is the only supposition. But a father is a different matter. For most having ten fingers and ten toes is enough, the solid proof of the success of their seed, free of errors in its encryption, the neatness of genetics.
It had been a surprise to him, her pregnancy, yet it was enough for the first child to be impressive to him from conception. Though with each of their children to enter and leave her womb, the feats they had to master became exponentially more challenging.
They were both in agreement as parents that once a child was old enough to count and read, at least nominally, the time was near to introduce the instruction of a musical instrument into the repertoire. This had been their own privilege as children and this too is where their agreement on the subject ended. He still resented those long afternoons of his childhood, even now knowing their influence, listening to the droning voice of the piano teacher:
“One-two- three, two-two-three. One-two-three, two-two-three.”
Always spoken in increasing tempo forcing him to keep up, feeling the hardness of the wooden bench against his bottom, grinding his jaw. His waltzing fingertips stumbling over the sharps and flats, tripping across the naturals. It ended much the same when she had insisted they take dance lessons prior to their wedding. All those long afternoons he would never get back, listening to the musical voice of the instructor:
“One-two-three, two-two-three,” appraising their bodies’ movements, increasing the music’s tempo. How he would begin to stumble over her, sharp and flat, far from natural! How the instructor would separate them and, counting out the music that wasn’t playing, waltz with the soon-to-be-bride across the wooden floor, the hardness of their heals’ clacking reminiscent of the piano bench of his childhood. It was learning to waltz more than anything which took the wildness away from her, allowed the tame to take hold. For she too had played in her childhood, to a musical voice counting out notes:
“One-two-three, two-two-three. One-two-three, two-two-three,” said in a voice not her own.
But just as the bottom half of her moved so smoothly across the hard wood as she waltzed, so too had her fingers moved across the sharps and flats, gliding across the naturals. Unlike he, she found a great sense of resilience in playing the right notes in perfect time to the musical voice now increasing in tempo:
“One-two-three, two-two-three. One-two-three, two-two-three,”
How now she would go about fussing over pies which varied seasonally and perfectly ironing his shirts, remembering to keep her upper body ridged, only her fingertips afforded the freedom of creativity. All the while counting in her head:
“One-two-three, two-two-three,” as if she were playing a piano.
“One-two-three, two-two-three,” as if she were waltzing across a wooden floor in another man’s arms, their heals’ clacking in perfect synchronization, her soon-to-be husband’s appraising gaze sweeping her body.
“One-two-three, two-two-three,” as if she were hearing the locomotive itself drawing him closer, its engine’s chugging helping her keep track of the seconds leading up to his impending arrival, drowning out the scream he’s not coming back, he’s not coming back as the clock struck one then two. Two, then three.
Although each child was afforded the luxury to develop at his own pace, it was at or around their seventh birthday when the piano lessons would commence weekly. They hadn’t had the money to move her old Wurlitzer upright to their first shared home, nor the space, a tenement building where they rented a studio apartment and saved those first few years for the house. Before the ducklings in the yard and the litter of kittens, before the absence of idle time and her full domestic blooming. She feared, too, that the piano would fall apart if she were to move it. So when the time came, he had bought the family a new Steinway Model 1098, its keys free of chips sharpening their edges, its finish free of scratches. A thing of beauty.
She’d stand in the doorway to the living room, agonizing at the sharp voices of the children’s mislaid hands whose back was to her, listening to the musical voice of the instructor:
Hoping one of them would recreate the embryonic music that each had last heard in her womb, for in the absence of idle time, she did not find a minute to spare on such pursuits. There were shirts which needed to be perfectly ironed, a pie crust to kneed until just short of over worked. She was also aware that the success of the children at what her husband had himself not mastered would be theirs to levy over him.
For the first child the easy dimpled smile when revealed in the hospital’s nursery was enough to stir his father’s heart, the newness of the care giving, the excitement of it arousing an interest which waivered with the second son then dissipated completely with the introduction of the third.
It was not until the second son had learned to play through the major scales without error or rest that he held his father’s attention undivided, for the third it came only after his first recital, his father being absent as she stood the sole witness to many homeruns, straight-A report cards and superior behavioral reports on each child’s part, as she thanked each one for contributing their keep in the performance of chores, as each week they sat on the hard wooden bench in front of the Steinway Model 1098’s pitch black face with their back to her, the piano instructor counting aloud:
“One-two-three, two-two-three. One-two-three, two-two-three,” always with increasing tempo to which they kept up, attempting to conjure the pride of their always absent father.
It was she though who felt the bitterness of his cold shoulder most harshly, the lack of his influence most fully when, each night, she would kiss their soft skinned foreheads, stroke their fine baby hairs and close the door silently behind her, dreading the day one would ask her a question she couldn’t answer.
It was only once her mother died and she returned to her childhood home that she was reunited with her wildness. The Wurlitzer, the companion of her pre-domesticity, standing in the entryway in welcome was slightly sharp from lack of playing. How it was then she remembered that waltzing was nothing more than a tightening and then a loosening, a sudden flick of the wrist, a stiffness of the fingers creating the sharp staccatos, then the liquid rolling through of the knuckles, sustaining a wave of progressing arpeggios. It was nothing more than an attention to every detail. It was nothing more than counting.
She’d flow dynamic through the tempo’s changes that she alone now counted. Yet it was always the silences of a composition’s rests which remained to her the most profound, as with most things’ silences tend to be. But there was still the counting across the rests:
One-two-three, two-two-three, drawing her back to a place in time where her fingertips were free to feel out the meaning of the melody, the pressure of the tips mastering the diminishments and crescendos.
One-two-three, two-two three, its rhythm reminiscent of two pairs of heals, clacking in perfect synchronization across a wooden floor, minding each accent, and — despite the dead E flat, the sticking middle B — each note rang as ripe as summer strawberries.
One-two-three, two-two-three, drawing her closer to the overture’s climax.
Somehow though, each sheet of music seemed less sweet when it was she striking out its notes, evaporating into the air, filling the room with sorrow.
When she heard the station car’s worn tires on the gravel of their driveway, she quickly shut off the radio she was listening to low as the children slept with a turning of her wrist, her slender boney fingers on the knob. Then she freshens her lipstick in the reflection of the mother-of-pearl compact he had given to her as a push present which she stowed in her apron pocket for just this purpose.
After the metallic clang of the car’s door there would be a moment of pure silence, without the counting to guide her across the rest, a rare experience.
Like swimming under water.
She’d untie the apron’s strings and smooth the slight rumpling of the good dress she had donned in anticipation of his arrival. Though she was not sure what condition allocated some of her dresses as such as she now had little occasion for such a thing as a “good” dress. She seemed now to only dress for him — meaning free of stains or the need of mending
Then he took off his tie in one swift downward pull at the knot as he walked in the door and sat down at the table. It was much later than she had anticipated and he had neglected to wash his hands. Still, she paid no mind as it was a relief to her: that he was coming home, having dinner, reliving his day by replaying the women with their children entering and leaving.
One or two?
Two or three?
She recalled hearing his careful even voice when she would wait in the anteroom on her visits in their early marriage, before the absence of idle time. Recalling how, on such occasions, she wore thigh high lace topped stockings with perfectly straight seams, newly domesticated. How then she was sure, sure she was the island where he found calm harbor.
Now he was always later and later.
Now all she could think was: he’s not coming back.
After he had eaten dinner and washed up he would creep into the nursery and kiss their soft skinned foreheads, stroke their fine baby hairs and close the door silently behind him, reflecting on how he was missing his children getting older, talking, walking, playing, laughing. Now they were sleeping. In the morning he’d awaken to the pitter patter of their little feet, the musical scrambling of their eggs in a ceramic mug with a tin fork, their happy voices piercing his groggy waking. He’d wake too, to the emptiness of the space where his wife slept, the indentation of her body still creasing the sheets and the smell of her on the pillow’s case.
He knew the moment in which she had first push life into the world that she was no longer his.
She usually made herself a drink while waiting up for him once the children were in bed and his dinner plate was in the oven warming. He pretended not to notice, or maybe gave no thought to it. She found the retelling of his day’s events relatively boring at best.
One or two?
Two or three?
Three or one?
Always in a calm even voice.
Fortunately the bourbon helped. He was the kind of doctor who never came into physical contact or emotional entanglements with his patients, despite however many women with their children entered and left his office. He would never be called in late at night for an emergency, relate the news to a dying patient, tell a hopeful couple the facts of their misgivings.
Though the mothers were an endless delight, the children were often unsure of what to make of the options presented.
“One or two?” he would ask to no reply.
“Two or three?” he would go on, their faces dwarfed behind the phoropter, their expression indiscernible, their little minds ignorant of the seconds accumulating into minutes, the hours of the doctor’s life slipping by. Their little minds ignorant of any regard for the years exhausted developing his careful expertise, his keen yielding to the slightest detail of focus.
“One or two? Two or three?” quickly waltzing through the options, osculating the cylinder lenses.
Taking note of phorias and vengeances.
“I’m not really sure,” would come a tiny voice from a face dwarfed behind the phoropter.
There they go, he’d think, referring to the seconds accumulating into minutes building into the hours of his very life slipping by. He’d again waltz through the options with the flick of his wrist, the curling of his fingers’ tips, day dreaming about fussed over pies which varied seasonally.
“One or two? Two or three?” he’d be wishing it was over— the exam, the day —waltzing through the potentials faster and faster.
Remembering the hard piano bench of his childhood, the clacking of perfectly synchronized heals across a wooden floor.
It suddenly would become clear.
Then he’d want her like time, almost tasting summer’s strawberry. Its juice wet on his lips.
Every year in mid-May they would vacation without the children. It was always somewhere subtropical but not quite in fashion – Marco Island, Costa Rica, Bimini. They’d stay at a full service resort where she would admire the bellhop’s biceps and he would lust after the bikini clad native who brought him fruit juice based concoctions laced with rum. He deemed it relaxing, then ordered drinks until his head ached simply to watch the waitress’s walk-away. He’d nap it off during the inevitable mid-afternoon rainstorms, leaving his wife companionless, missing her children and her kitchen; the places he lacked the ability to penetrate.
As they undressed for bed, she would study him intently as he brushed his teeth. Always later and later. She’d watch the paste foam up in his mouth, the vigorous motion of the brush head. As he washed his face, she’d anticipate the powdery scent of the soap sticking to his stubble when he drew her to him at the close of the day.
Tame, she thinks.
She asks where they were going this year, it was already late April and the apple and pumpkin of the fall and winter pies had ripened to peach and cherry. She had begun resenting that they had stopped trying for a fourth child, her still wanting a girl, knowing a daughter would have the sway to awe him solely with a smile as their first son had. Whose hands she’d instill with the ability to decipher at which point a pie’s crust dough had reached perfection, the ability to know when it was no longer in need of kneading but was nearing the point of being over worked. No, it was not so much resentment as guilt. It was not he who was at fault. His lips were slightly chapped, she noticed.
“I think we’ll stay here with the children,” he said when he met her eyes in the mirror, “I’ll close the practice for a few days.”
She smiled wide, taking inventory of his graying hair and deepening wrinkles, revealing her laugh lines.
Much later, once they were sure the children were dreaming in the next room, the even, gentle knocking of their headboard against the wall could be heard like oars, rowing them out to sea.